Over on Mythic Scribes, a forum for fantasy writers, someone posted a short excerpt in what he described as an old-fashioned style. It wasn’t very old-fashioned, as several of us pointed out. But it got me thinking. If one were to write in a truly old-fashioned style, what would it look like?
Kris Rusch wrote a thought-provoking blog piece a couple of months ago about Serious Writer Voice. Her point was that far too many writers today write in the same style. Their voices lack individuality.
Arguably, Hemingway deserves some of the blame for this. He made short punchy sentences fashionable. The pulp crime fiction of the 1930s also has a heavy footprint, though the best crime writers breathe life into their blued-steel sentences. Here’s Ross MacDonald, from The Far Side of the Dollar:
He rose in a quick jerky movement and went to the door. I thought he was going to tell me to leave, but he didn’t. He stood against the closed door in the attitude of a man facing a rifle squad.
That’s not MacDonald’s best writing, but it serves nicely to illustrate the hard-boiled style.
Contrast that with 19th century writing. Opening Nicholas Nickleby at random, I find Dickens doing this:
On this repetition of Mr. Mantalini’s fatal threat, Madame Mantalini wrung her hands and implored the interference of Ralph Nickleby; and after a great quantity of tears and talking, and several attempts on the part of Mr. Mantalini to reach the door, preparatory to straight-way committing violence upon himself, that gentleman was prevailed upon, with difficulty, to promise that he wouldn’t be a body. This great point attained, Madame Mantalini argued the question of the allowance, and Mr. Mantalini did the same, taking occasion to show that he could live with uncommon satisfaction upon bread and water and go clad in rags, but that he could not support existence with the additional burden of being mistrusted by the object of his most devoted and disinterested affection.
Not having read the novel in some years, I’m not prepared to say precisely what’s going on in this passage, other than a domestic dispute. But it hardly matters. The point is simple: That is old-fashioned writing. Today’s writer would probably want to break the first sentence apart by putting a period after “Ralph Nickleby,” but it would be wrong to do so. The semicolon splice has the specific function of tying together the emotional outburst in the first half of the sentence (“wrung her hands and implored”) and the “great quantity of tears” in the second half. The second sentence is an uninterrupted flow of 62 words.
Many writers in the 19th century had studied Latin, and those who hadn’t were influenced by those who had. This type of sentence is directly inspired by the Latin period (a sort of extended sentence). I’d like to see today’s aspiring authors (a few of them, at least) tackle that style — not to duplicate it, necessarily, but to learn from it. We’re the poorer for its loss.